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Hipsters, heritage and Handel – how cities can escape London’s shadow

Now it is Birmingham’s turn. After two years in which Manchester has hogged the headlines as England’s “second city”, Birmingham is out to reclaim what was once its title. Next Thursday, both cities and four others are choosing elected mayors in what is billed as a rehearsal for the 8 June general election. The vote is also a chapter in the devolution of Britain, and in Theresa May’s “rebalancing” of the economy away from London.

With Manchester looking a shoo-in for Andy Burnham, the focus is on Birmingham. Here the contest is neck-and-neck, between the Labour stalwart Siôn Simon and former John Lewis boss Andy Street. The Birmingham Mail last week had Simon slightly ahead after second preferences. Whoever wins will have the biggest personal mandate of any politician, apart from the London mayor.

He will need it. Of all provincial cities, Birmingham’s government has had a dire decade. Its schools have been declared failing by Ofsted. Its children’s services have been put in special measures. An independent commission two years ago found the city’s government “dysfunctional”.

Last year a corner began to be turned. In December 2015 the Labour regime of the former council leader, Sir Albert Bore, was replaced by John Clancy. Clancy is determined to fight back against Manchester’s northern powerhouse status. He declared a “Midlands engine … a powerful post-Brexit city-state.” But Clancy must now wrestle with the consequence of £650m in budget cuts since 2010, with more to come. A court has added to his woes by declaring the city owes its female staff up to £1.2bn in compensation for unequal pay.

Can a new elected mayor make an impact on this? It will not be easy. Simon or Street will not be mayor of Birmingham, but mayor of something called the West Midlands Combined Authority. This means being mayor at the same time of Wolverhampton, Coventry, Dudley and Sandwell among other places. While Burnham in Greater Manchester will head a city and its natural satellites, Birmingham’s mayor is essentially a regional governor, as are the mayors of Bristol, Middlesbrough, Cambridge and Peterborough.

Central government has long opposed strong local democracy. Past elections for police commissioners and hospital trusts have seen turnouts barely in double figures. In Birmingham’s case, the city council will remain dominant. Its budget will be £3.6bn, against the mayor’s modest £36.5m.

Birmingham University’s local government expert, Catherine Staite, points out that the powers of the new mayors are “constrained, obscure and insignificant”. The mayor will chair a cabinet of council leaders, who can overrule their every decision on a two-thirds majority. As Staite says, it is the subordinate councils that remain the “local big hitters” – and in the West Midlands, these councils have in the past “behaved like a nest of vipers”.

But Staite remains an optimist. The London mayoralty under Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson established a high-profile precedent. A direct mandate is effective, compared with council leaders chosen from party cabals. What the new mayors may lack in formal power, they should make up in their ability to “convene, to form coalitions and wield leadership”. It is the new politics of personal visibility against that of old party machines.

Both Simon and Street are aware of this. Simon is the more conventional figure. A laid-back former Labour MP, he is eager for Birmingham to follow in Manchester’s “powerhouse” footsteps. Long a campaigner for mayors, he wants local government to “shift the paradigm, to take over all local services, including health. West Midlands should get a Barnett formula block grant, like Wales and Scotland.”

The question – and it applies to the new mayors across the country – is whether the winner can mobilise their “soft power” to put their region on the national map. Simon is aware of the problem. “West Midlands has lost our pride in itself, our sense of our story. We have the most vital culture outside London, with the youngest population in Europe after Turkey.” Yet his fellow Midlanders keep talking themselves down. “The worst thing you can be in Birmingham is a bragger.”

Less a politician than a chief executive, Street is energetic and pragmatic. To him, the mayoral job is to “keep out of the hair” of the council leaders and be their regional coordinator and champion. As chairman of the Birmingham local enterprise partnership, which he claims has brought the region 300,000 private sector jobs, he views the mayoralty as being about lobbying, “cutting deals with government”.

Birmingham’s challenge to Manchester is plausible. The conurbations have similar populations. Birmingham claims primacy as the richer city and the most business-friendly outside the capital. It leads Manchester in the startup stakes. Last year it won 1,200 jobs from the coup of the new headquarters for HSBC. It entices 6,000 people a year to migrate north from London, largely in search of a cheaper home. As a magnet it claims to lead both Bristol and Manchester.

Birmingham’s relative proximity to London could be either a boon or a curse. Critics have suggested the much-vaunted HS2 will make Birmingham “the Croydon of the Midlands”, joining East Anglia and the south coast as commuter suburbs of the capital. Rather than links to London, Birmingham most needs better internal road and rail links.

If the city’s secret weapon is the state of London’s housing market – which at the last count had helped send 60,000 thirtysomethings out of the capital – its most oft-cited handicap is its image, of bleak 60s architecture and Spaghetti Junction motorways, a legacy of the car crash that was its postwar rebuild under council leader Frank Price and his chief planner, Herbert Manzoni. They turned central Birmingham into somewhere more appropriate to a Formula One circuit. To Manzoni, “tangible links with the past” were pointless. Swaths of a central area that rivalled Manchester as a Victorian masterpiece were razed to the ground.

Today’s Birmingham is fighting back. The city has “more canals than Venice”, say the property ads. The fast-gentrifying Jewellery Quarter is Britain’s finest concentration of still-active craftsmen. Oases of urban civility such as Gas Street basin and Digbeth offer respite from the inner ring roads. Birmingham planners should imitate Boston and create linear parks by grassing over its downtown motorways.

These days it is the old parts of cities that attract the start-up businesses and leisure uses that induce the young not to take the royal road to London. Inner cities need fizz. Inter-city rivalry lies not in HSBC and Deutsche Bank; it lies in Birmingham’s orchestras and Jewellery Quarter, versus Manchester’s Halle and Northern Quarter. It lies not in corporate HQs but in Handel, hipsters and heritage.

Birmingham, like Manchester, is about to experience the new politics that London has enjoyed since 2000. It is a measure of this politics that neither candidate’s manifesto mentions Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. Simon barely even mentions the Labour party. But both call in aid the great Joe Chamberlain, creator of modern Birmingham.

As it was my birthplace, I long for Birmingham to come up to the mark. But what matters most is that Britain’s cities can find a new political potency to rival not each other but London. From such rivalry everyone wins.